2019 Canadian Premier League Preview

By Benjamin Massey · April 26th, 2019 · 1 comment

On October 4, 1992, the Winnipeg Fury tied the Vancouver 86ers 1-1 and won the Canadian Soccer League title on aggregate. The next match in a Canadian national soccer league comes 9,701 days later, tomorrow, April 27, 2019. Forge FC versus York 9 (10 AM Pacific, CBC television). We’ve waited long enough.

Nobody knows how this league is going to shake out, and unusually for Canadian soccer, nobody pretends they know. We’re all excited. We’re all smashing rosters with the hammer of criticism on the anvil of looking players up on Wikipedia. I am trying to track publicly-made predictions, because that should be good for a laugh; in fact I can’t remember the last time I had this many laughs just reading about and listening to Canadian soccer takes. There are well-respected veteran pundits who were not alive the last time a national Canadian soccer league played a game and they’re gushing with the best of them. Enthusiasm is more contagious than measles in a Montessori.

Coming up is Maple Leaf Forever!‘s official 2019 Canadian Premier League preview. Like all the others it is insane in spots, biased everywhere, and probably wrong more than it’s right. But who cares? Our hopes are unblemished by the scars of experience. Here’s the one prediction you can take to the bank: there won’t be many better years to be a Canadian soccer fan, ever, than the year 2019.

Overall Prediction

Positions
Ov Team GK DF MF FW
1 Forge FC 2 4 1 2
2 Cavalry FC 1 1 2 5
3 FC Edmonton 7 3 4 1
4 Pacific FC 3 5 3 3
5 York 9 FC 5 2 7 4
6 Valour FC 4 6 5 6
7 HFX Wanderers 6 7 6 7

Consuming other league previews has been instructive. While most pundits pick the two coastal teams to struggle, Halifax-based Dylan Matthias at The Merchant Sailor favours the Wanderers to beat expectations, and Ben Massey at British Columbia-based Maple Leaf Forever! thinks Pacific will do fine, though he’d like them to sign enough locals to fill out a bench. Duane Rollins, based in Toronto, has York 9 ahead of some others. Edmonton’s Loyal Company of the River Valley podcast argues FC Edmonton’s depth is underrated. TSN 1290 Winnipeg’s Ryan Brandt told the Young Gaffers podcast that Valour is going to come together and win the fall season. Strange coincidences, these.

So given regional bias, we should pay attention when it’s absent: almost everybody has got Forge and Cavalry in the top three. Cavalry took the best part of a hilariously dominant 2018 USL PDL championship team then added a bunch of quality. Forge has a respected Ontario coach and more Canadian glamour boys than anyone else in the league. This blog is not going to dissent.

When previewing the league much is made of home-field advantage. It sucks traveling to Halifax or Langford, which means that it’s equally hard to travel from them. We each know our local ground fairly well, but the CanPL is changing them so much that the only way we’ll know what playing in each city is like will be experience. Making predictions about a brand new league is a fool’s errand; trying to guess at the differing home field advantages doubly so. Other analysts try to draw conclusions from preseason games in the Dominican Republic, or the lack thereof, that we’re hearing about second- or third-hand. This doesn’t seem a lot better.

So, in an effort to make my preview actually useful I have chosen to break the league down position-by-position rather than team-by-team. You can see my ranking of each team by position above, but if you want the details, keep scrolling.

Position-by-Position

Goalkeeping

Bob Frid/Canada Soccer
  1. Cavalry (Marco Carducci, Niko Giantsopoulos)
  2. Forge (Quillan Roberts, Tristan Henry)
  3. Pacific (Nolan Wirth, Mark Village)
  4. Valour (Tyson Farago, Mathias Janssens)
  5. York (Nathan Ingham, Colm Vance, Matt Silva)
  6. Halifax (Jan-Michael Williams, Christian Oxner)
  7. Edmonton (Connor James, Dylan Powley)

Cavalry walks away with this category. Everyone who has ever seen Marco Carducci has waited for him to get this chance in the serene knowledge that he’d be good enough. Among the players with less professional experience he’s almost the only lock in this league. Right now Maxime Crépeau is in Vancouver seizing the MLS chance that, had Marc dos Santos arrived a couple years earlier, would have been Carducci’s, and I promise Crépeau is not intrinsically any better. Marco will be fine. Probable league goalkeeper of the year. Giantsopoulos is kind of a fun guy, an attractive-playing goalie whose time in the lower Australian leagues means he’s used to tough travel and dodgy conditions. There’s certainly nothing to complain about in the backup department either.

Forge is also going to get a lot of love because of Quillan Roberts; I personally have never rated him at the Carducci level but he has some strident and knowledgeable defenders, while Tristan Henry is a well-known League1 Ontario name. Those from east of Thunder Bay can swap Forge and Cavalry around if they like. Pacific has a couple good underrated pros in Wirth and Village, both of whom definitely belong in this league; like Edmonton they haven’t got a clear number one at all, but unlike Edmonton it’s in a good way. That probably ends the list of “teams that should be happy in goal.”

By comparison, Valour suffer; while Farago is nice he’s had a rough couple years and his enormous right foot is less of a game-changer than Carducci’s shot-stopping. Young Janssens is a complete wild card, an admittedly unready European signed for the future. Unless you really know this guy’s the next Kaspar Schmeichel that’s a weird use of an international spot. Farago’s as good as Village or Wirth, but it’s a long year and Farago/Janssens together will not surpass Wirth/Village together.

HFX’s Jan-Michael Williams was a pretty good goalie before the last war but is now in the “late-stage Rein Baart” stage of his career, albeit taller. Enormous crowds of pundits tab him for CanPL goalkeeper of the year but he’s barely been a club starter for the past decade and his continued presence in the Trinidadian goal is more a reflection on the country than the keeper. Christian Oxner is an Atlantic favourite waiting for a chance, and there’s every chance he gets the gloves and doesn’t let them go for ten years, but it hasn’t happened yet. York is Nathan Ingham, who has already proven less good than two of the other starters on this list, and two other guys from deep in the Football Manager database. And while I know my low ranking of the Eddies will generate feedback that’s not angry, just disappointed, Connor James and Dylan Powley will be making a big, big step up into the Canadian Premier League without support and without much to suggest even a Wirth/Farago-like ceiling.

Defense

New York Cosmos
  1. Cavalry (Nik Ledgerwood, Nathan Mavila, Dean Northover, Chris Serban, Mason Trafford, Jay Wheeldon, Dominick Zator)
  2. York (Diyaeddine Abzi, Morey Doner, Steven Furlano, Luca Gasparotto, Daniel Gogarty, Justin Springer, Roger Thompson)
  3. Edmonton (Amer Didic, Kareem Moses, Ramon Soria, Mele Temguia, Allan Zebie)
  4. Forge (Kwame Awuah, Klaidi Cela, Jonathan Grant, Daniel Krutzen, Monti Mohsen, Bertrand Owundi, Dominic Samuel)
  5. Pacific (Kadin Chung, Marcel de Jong, Emile Legault, Lukas MacNaughton, Ryan McCurdy, Blake Smith, Hendrik Starostzik)
  6. Valour (Martin Arguiñarena, Raphaël Garcia, Adam Mitter, Jordan Murrell, Skylar Thomas)
  7. Halifax (Andre Bona, Alex de Carolis, Chakib Hocine, Ndzemdzela Langwa, Chrisnovic N’sa, Peter Schaale, Zachary Sukunda)

Good news for those worried that 0-0 draws will turn off casual fans: CanPL will not be a defensive league.

The season-long injuries to Pacific’s Marcel de Jong and Cavalry’s Chris Serban have knocked the whole league down a peg. de Jong is well-known to us all, of course, but his loss not only mauls Pacific’s competitive chances but apparently still counts against their salary cap. It is insane that the Canadian Premier League has a salary cap and no way to account for a third of your budget being injured before kickoff, but for preview purposes it doesn’t matter. They have a problem.

Serban was going to do very well in the Canadian Premier League. He’s struggled with injuries the past couple years, which is the only mark against an otherwise-excellent young player. Even accounting for that, and Nik Ledgerwood getting old, Cavalry’s going to have a deadly backline: Mason Trafford might be the best defender left in the league, Dominick Zator is little-known but very good, and Northover and Wheeldon are fine. I’m not sold on Mavila, the former West Ham trainee who made a Europa League bench but is now best known for insurance fraud, and with Serban gone he might have to carry a lot of mail, but Tommy Wheeldon has a good record here. (Though not listed, Joel Waterman can also fill in at fullback.)

York also has a first-ballot CanPL Guy With Something to Prove in Luca Gasparotto, who I have never failed to see at least decent for the Canadian youth teams. Beyond that stand Roger Thompson, a quality veteran, some pretty good semi-pros, one of the better university guys in Daniel Gogarty, and help out wide from Kyle Porter when needed. That is, by the standards of the league, a quietly solid unit. Edmonton is similar: a couple dandy fullbacks (Zebie and Soria) plus a fair one (Moses) all held together by literally and figuratively enormous centreback Amer Didic. The other spot is a problem, whether it’s dodgy journeyman Mele Temguia, Moses, or (my suggestion) underrated but so far unsigned draft pick Noah Cunningham. More top-end talent than York, less all-round quality.

Forge is like York but a bit worse, and rather than hoping Luca Gasparotto can develop they’re hoping Bertrand Owundi has anything at all. Kwame Awuah is the big dog here, but for all his enthusiasm and MLS experience he’s never gotten me excited. I’d rather have, say, a young Jim Brennan, and as it happens Brennan is constructing his roster on a similar principle.

Pacific’s not great either but has a sneaky asset. Without de Jong the Van Isle fullbacks offer the best combination of youth and excellence at any position in the league. Legault is raw and will probably be exposed but has high potential, and right-back-presumptive Kadin Chung is a fine youth and ex-USL player who has never yet failed to move up a level. Given that the CanPL is set to require a quota of U-21 starters, having Legault and Chung available gives tactical versatility. Among the oldies ex-Montreal Impact man Blake Smith, on loan from MLS, will probably swallow up as many fullback minutes as he can handle and do an unspectacular but commendable job with them. Unfortunately their centreback situation is catastrophic: lanky German Hendrik Starostzik is an intriguing signing, but “part-timer in the lower German leagues” is not something to anchor your backline with, while Ryan McCurdy was an underwhelming PDL player and Lukas MacNaughton is a versatile League1 Ontario guy trying to walk into the starting eleven. Talk that Adam Straith will join after the German season is hopeful, but a tired 3.Liga player rumoured to be arriving later is not salvation.

Halifax has nothing but issues: plenty of PDL experience and a few guys who hung out in USL or got a half-season with the Montreal Impact reserves or something but not an established name in the bunch. Their veteran is an 29-year-old from USports. Their prospect is a former Victoria Highlander also from USports. Not all these guys will be duds but they are set up for problems. At least Valour, who are otherwise in similarly dire straits, have the thoroughly tested Thomas and Murrell to lend some poise, plus the admittedly slim possibility that Martín Arguiñarena turns out to be good. They could play Michael Petrasso at right back, I suppose, but he’ll have better things to do.

Midfield

John Dorton/Canada Soccer
  1. Forge (Kyle Bekker, Tristan Borges, David Choinière, Elimane Oumar Cissé, Giuliano Frano, Alexander Achinioti Jönsson)
  2. Cavalry (Elijah Adekugbe, Julian Büscher, Sergio Camargo, Jose Escalante, Mauro Eustaquio, Malyk Hamilton, Victor Loturi, Oliver Minatel, Carlos Patino, Joel Waterman)
  3. Pacific (Matthew Baldisimo, Victor Blasco, Jose Hernandez, Alessandro Hojabrpour, Noah Verhoeven)
  4. Edmonton (Randy Edwini-Bonsu, Ajay Khabra, Philippe Lincourt-Joseph, James Marcelin, Edem Mortotsi, Son Yong-chan, Bruno Zebie)
  5. Valour (Louis Béland-Goyette, Dylan Carreiro, Nicolás Galvis, Josip Golubar, Diego Gutierrez, Glenn Muenkat, Raphael Ohin, Federico Peña, Michael Petrasso, Dylan Sacramento)
  6. Halifax (Scott Firth, Akeem Garcia, Juan Diego Gutierrez, Kodai Iida, Elton John, Kouamé Ouattara, Andre Rampersad, Elliot Simmons)
  7. York (Manuel Aparicio, Joseph Di Chiara, Emilio Estevez, Wataru Murofushi, Kyle Porter, Ryan Telfer, Emmanuel Zambazis)

Forge has got probably the best player in the league, Kyle Bekker. It’s got one of the most promising, David Choinière. Neither Tristan Borges nor Giuliano Frano are at all jokes, and though Borges has got everything to prove this is the right environment for him. Alexander Achinioti Jönsson is a sneakily good-looking import. Most of these players, and all the stars, are moderately-sized, vivacious, attacking players, but balance is for sissies. This midfield is going to be a hell of a lot of fun and in this respect, if no other, I envy the people of Hamilton.

Not that I’ll be watching trash rolling around for Pacific FC. The excellence of Bekker elevates Forge, but Noah Verhoeven is a first-rate prospect for the level who certainly sustains comparisons with Choinière, Matthew Baldisimo could be a dangerous box-to-box player if he doesn’t have to line up at fullback, and while the depth is young and occasionally highly-touted. Given how many roster spots Pacific has open one has to provisionally leave room for draft picks Thomas Gardner and Zack Verhoven in these calculations, which would only add to Pacific’s punch.

Rounding out the top half of a good midfield crop are the two Alberta teams: Cavalry gets the nod over Edmonton because of the excellence of former Eddie Mauro Eustaquio, a player who alternates between getting the credit he deserves as a potential Julian de Guzman and completely forgotten behind his brother depending on how much he’s on Canadian TV. Julian Büscher is an established, highly-credible import who deserves more press than he’s been getting, and while Oliver Minatel gets a bit too much credit for his time in Ottawa he’s fine. Calgary already knows their depth well and they’ll do what’s asked of them. Edmonton’s midfield is less spectacular, relying too much on a mid-career resurgence from Randy Edwini-Bonsu, and James Marcelin had been called underrated so often lately he’s becoming overrated. But he remains Marcelin a fine player (perhaps a Eustaquio without the potential to get better) and if anyone is going to rediscover his magic in CanPL, it’ll be Edwini-Bonsu in Edmonton. Son Yong-chan is a wild entry who I once heard called the best training-ground player of all time, the Cavalry absolutely would have taken Bruno Zebie if he was available, and Ajay Khabra gets praise as an electric prospect from Edmonton observers.

There is a bit of a dip from number four to number five. Valour boasts Michael Petrasso, who will be first-rate if he can recover from a depressing few years, Croatian Josip Golubar, a quality veteran from the lower Balkan divisions, and some locals who are reasonably well-liked. They won’t be badly let down but, bar Golubar, lack star power. Louis Béland-Goyette is the man to watch; his getting his career back on track would do more for Valour than almost any equivalent player around the league.

Halifax and York are in similarly depressing situations, but for totally different reasons. The Wanderers have a tantalizing young local, Scott Firth, who we should all hope gets his minutes, plus a procession of extremely unremarkable foreign imports who will be expected to step right up and hang with Bekker and Fisk. York’s midfielders are mostly domestic, and import Wataru Murofushi is not likely to be a star, but those midfielders are fairly well known and not of a very high standard. Aparicio, Di Chiara, Porter, and Zambazis have all fallen out of higher leagues and weren’t missed. Telfer is a 25-year-old on loan from Toronto FC and is not getting his option picked up. Good on the Canadian Premier League for giving these local players second chances; that’s why we want this league. Aparicio in particular is a pro. But a bit unfortunate for York that they’re all in one place.

Forward

Uwe Welz/FC Edmonton
  1. Edmonton (Prince Amanda, Tomi Ameobi, Oumar Diouck, David Doe, Ajeej Sarkaria, Marcus Velado-Tsegaye)
  2. Forge (Chris Nanco, Anthony Novak, Kadell Thomas, Anthony Novak, Emery Welshman, Marcel Zajac)
  3. Pacific (Terran Campbell, Ben Fisk, Marcus Haber, Issey Nakajima-Farran)
  4. York (Simon Adjei, Michael Cox, Austin Ricci, Cyrus Rollocks)
  5. Cavalry (Gabriel Bitar, Jordan Brown, Dominique Malonga, Nico Pasquotti)
  6. Valour (Tyler Attardo, Calum Ferguson, Stephen Hoyle, Ali Musse)
  7. Halifax (Mohamed Kourouma, Vincent Lamy, Luis Alberto Perea, Tomasz Skublak, Abd-El-Aziz Yousef)

Stereotypically, a new league loads up on famous, high-producing strikers who’ll sell kits and draw fans. In CanPL, though, the talent appears to have concentrated in midfield, with defenders and strikers nearly an afterthought. I could make an argument for any team ranked from one to six having any other ranking, with only the seventh-place team as an outlier (and even they have one gun). Does that say something?

Edmonton’s struck the right balance. Tomi Ameobi, one of the all-time leading scorers in the Voyageurs Cup, a popular player, and a very well-established (if streaky) goalscorer at this level who knows Edmonton well, should lead the line and be among the league scoring leaders. Diouck is too old to be a prospect and couldn’t stick around even in Belgian semi-pro soccer but you could have worse depth. Of the prospects Amanda is the biggest name, partially on account of his brother Gloire, but I’ve seen Doe good and as Steven Sandor mentioned Velado-Tsegaye is getting a lot of hype ahead of his professional debut.

Pacific’s trying something similar but less effectively. Their depth is not as bad as it looks on the official site: if Issey Nakajima-Farran is a forward then Ben Fisk is and I bet Terran Campbell’s going to spend time up top. But Haber’s strengths and limitations are perfectly clear to any Canadian fan, Issey is not a young man anymore, Fisk is a terrific player but not a prime goalscorer, and guys like Campbell or Victor Blasco are question marks. None really have pace; with a dynamic midfield they can generate offense but will need flowing soccer unusual at this level to excel. They could really, really use a Dario Zanatta type but should be fine.

On the other hand, very high marks to Forge, who have no “names” beyond Guyanese international Emery Welshman, but have assembled a first-rate collection of hungry overachievers who need a serious professional opportunity. I am very excited to see League1 Ontario star Anthony Novak, a fine goalscorer and apparently an absolute bastard to play against, getting a chance at a higher level; he will turn heads in this first season. Novak’s 24. If not for CanPL nobody in North American pro soccer would have given him a second look, but he might be good for ten goals next year. Valour and York both have decent strike-forces-by-committee: York should be headlined by Michael Cox, a pacey and unsophisticated but prolific classic striker, and people like the thicc Simon Adjei. Ali Musse’s left the spotlight but produced here and there in PDL and has gotten stronger, while Tyler Attardo gives Valour another young guy Rob Gale can develop. Stephen Hoyle’s move from New Zealand to Canada might be lateral, and he scored enough against kiwis to be rated against beavers.

Cavalry’s managed to find two players who, five years ago, would have been hailed as stars. Jordan Brown is a former English youth international and Dominique Malonga has scored in Scotland while repping the Congo. But for all the pedigree, breaking down Malonga’s past five years makes him look like a poor man’s Marcus Haber. Brown has gone from West Ham to western Canada for a reason and just flunked out of the Czech Republic. I dislike total washouts, as a rule; USL and NASL teams often take chances on such guys and usually leave disappointed. From the opposite end of the career spectrum, first overall USports draft pick Gabriel Bitar needs to prove he can replicate his sensational shooting percentages against pros. On the other hand, likely at least one of Bitar, Brown, and Malonga will adapt to this league, while Nico Pasquotti is an underrated, versatile player. Though they’re ranked deceptively low in this category we can promise that Cavalry will put the ball in the net.

Halifax has almost nothing. Up top that is a PDL roster apart from 32-year-old Luis Alberto Perea. Perea is only a year removed from being a goal-per-game striker in the decent Salvadoran league, but he’s scored at much lower rates in Colombia, Peru, and Brazil. Halifax is his ninth club in the last five years. He’s aging, living out of his suitcase, and the very opposite of a sure thing. Nobody else there is anybody. It will be a long year on the east coast.

Predicted CanPL Best XI

Marco Carducci (Cavalry)
Nik Ledgerwood (Cavalry) – Luca Gasparotto (York) – Mason Trafford (Cavalry) – Blake Smith (Pacific)
Kyle Bekker (Forge) – James Marcelin (Edmonton) – David Choinière (Forge)
Ben Fisk (Pacific) – Tomi Ameobi (Edmonton) – Michael Cox (York)

Predicted CanPL MVP

Kyle Bekker, with say seven goals and ten assists. If not him then Ben Fisk; if not them then Ameobi.

Coach of the Year

Probably Tommy Wheeldon,. Jr. at Cavalry, who has all the qualifications: his team will be good, he’ll deserve a lot of credit for that, he’s photogenic, and he’s a good quote. An extremely tough candidate to beat, but coach of the year is always implicitly a reflection of team results. If Halifax gets into contention, and this league is so unpredictable that they very well might, Stephen Hart will charge into pole position.

Young Player of the Year

Pacific FC right back Kadin Chung is a fine U-21 player who will probably see at least 1,500 minutes and should do well with them. Should he stay healthy and Pacific even produce respectable results he has to be a very large favourite. But I’m also looking at Valour’s Tyler Attardo. Winnipeg has always been better than you might think at producing very good U-20 players; they just haven’t had the opportunity to develop into adults. Attardo is a rare player who’ll be getting a big chance on a strike force that’ll be hungry for anything it can get, and he’s got the rep of a kid with ice in his veins who knows where the goal is.

2019 Canadian Premier League champion

While I think Forge is the best overall team in the league, it’s by a very narrow margin over Cavalry. And Cavalry knows how to win championships. Most of these guys just did it, and while the quality of play in CanPL will be higher than USL PDL the travel, playing conditions, and other off-field obstacles are if anything going to be easier in Canada. Nobody in Cavalry’s starting eleven is going to be intimidated by a big final, and many of them will have faith in their teammates established by experience. Forge has its share of winners, Bekker best among them. But in a very close struggle, Cavalry’s superior experience over two legs would give them the edge.

Power Ranking the Canadian Premier League Mascots

By Benjamin Massey · April 25th, 2019 · No comments

The Canadian Premier League kick-off this coming Saturday will be our biggest event in some time. The entire domestic soccer community will be settling down at 1 PM Eastern, either in Forge FC’s stadium or in front of CBC television, to witness a new and hopefully more positive era in our nation’s game. This otherwise quite ordinary league fixture is making hearts across the Dominion beat a bit faster, like an Olympic semi-final.

Nothing could better herald this dawn than our mascots. Four of the Canadian Premier League’s seven teams have, in recent weeks, introduced us to new mascots who will stand as symbols for all time, representing the Canadian Premier League to ourselves and to the world. Canada’s national coat of arms is supported by a unicorn and a lion, representing the British heritage of our governance and our culture that goes back way before Confederation. Perhaps, in a couple centuries, some new country will bear arms supported by Bolt and Stewie the Starfish. It is scarcely less probable than the existence of the Canadian Premier League itself.

In honour of this joyous week I have decided to rank all of the league’s mascots so far, from best to worst. These ratings are entirely objective and based off a proprietary statistical algorithm developed by the Prince of Wales and tested by Maple Leaf Forever!‘s secret nerd hive in Sudbury-Thunder Bay. As a result its decisions are not to be argued with, only agreed on and amplified.

Finally, if you got to this post from Reddit or something and are confused, you should know that every word in this article is completely serious.

1. Vic (Valour FC)

Valour FC

Strengths: Is, identifiably, a lion in a Valour kit. But not too identifiably. If you search Amazon for “lion costume” he isn’t on the first page. Is named after Canadian legend Vic Rauter, who has spent a lot of time in Winnipeg. Lions are classy mascots in any context, whether for a soccer club or the British Empire. Is far from the lamest of the mascots when in cartoon form. And was the first mascot announced back in February, which surely counts for something.

Weaknesses: Probably isn’t actually named after Vic Rauter.

Wild card: In Vic’s own words:

My dad played keeper for the Winnipeg Fury when they used to play at the old Winnipeg Stadium, so I followed in his footsteps.

The Fury played at Winnipeg Stadium from 1987 to 1992 so there are many possibilities, including 1990 league all-star Tim Rosenfeld. However by far the best known former Fury goalkeeper was 57-time Canadian international Pat Onstad, who played three CSL seasons for the Fury in 1989, 1990, and 1992. Vic refers to his dad being “king” of the Assiniboine Park Zoo “for years,” and Onstad was a useful MLS goalkeeper to the age of 42. It is now canon that Valour FC’s mascot is Pat Onstad’s son. The history of Canadian soccer will have to be rewritten.

Conclusions: Simple, classy. The fact that he is the bastard child of the guy who cost us a spot in the hex in 2008 can, with the passage of years, be forgiven. Vic is the clear king of the mascot jungle.

2. Ballsy (FC Edmonton)

FC Edmonton

Strengths: Nobody ever looked at Ballsy and said “what sport do they play?”

Weaknesses: Back in 2016 Jay Ball shot Ballsy in the head and buried the deflated remains behind a barn in Strathcona County. When Academy kids ask where Ballsy is they say that he’s playing with dogs on a beautiful farm where the turf is always artificial.

Wild card: Is “Ballsy” actually his name or was that just a meme? I am sure they were calling him “Eddie” for a hot second there.

Conclusions: Someday we are going to bust Ballsy out of Saint Helena and then you’ll all pay.

3. Stewie the Starfish (Pacific FC)

OneSoccer via Twitter

Strengths: The most bad-ass cartoon on offer. A shape that lends itself well to cookies. The only mascot both named after and executed in one of the team’s bespoke marketing colours. When you think about it, a purple soccer-playing starfish could actually be really good.

Weaknesses: The gap between the bad-ass-looking trident-wielding cartoon Stewie and the real-life droopy sponge could not be wider. Even CHEK News admitted he looks like Grimace in a knock-off kit. He was also possibly named after mayor of Langford Stewart Young, whose promised renovations to Westhills Stadium helped lure a Canadian Premier League team. This is not to be encouraged.

Wild card: Pacific FC held an open mascot tryout in March. This probably sounded fun at a time but created a risk that the new mascot promoting the team to children would be a guy who owned his own fursuit. Even with a bespoke design, these are concerning genetics.

Conclusions: Like David Choinière, Stewie has not put it all together yet but the ingredients are there, and at the Canadian Premier League level he will have every chance to succeed. Perhaps he can be sold to Orlando City for a lavish transfer fee and the proceeds reinvested in young mascots from Van Isle.

4. Blue Bolt (FC Edmonton)

FC Edmonton

Strengths: Has a logo. In fact has a secondary logo, which seems a little extra. Is the only CanPL mascot to date derived from his team’s history, since FC Edmonton’s the only team with any. “Bolt” is a respectable name.

Weaknesses: “Blue Bolt” is somehow not a respectable name at all. FC Edmonton 3D-rendered their mascot reveal, and the results were so creepy I will hold it against Bolt forever. Also between the blue, the lightning, and the speed theme, he is obviously a Sonic the Hedgehog clone that got lost on his way to the Sega Genesis. Except, and I know perfectly well Bolt has two eyebrows whereas this guy has one, something about the top of the face recalls an evil Bert. This is not a great association.

Wild card: What’s with how deadly-serious that reveal video was? Is this a darker and edgier FC Edmonton for the ’90s? Is Bolt going to star in a nine-hour-long comic book movie for emotionally undeveloped adults? What’s going on here?

Conclusions: Bolt is probably the mascot who best demonstrates that mascots aren’t for us. He is so cringe-worthy, and so weird, and so derivative, and the boys will probably love him anyway. He should get a Twitch.

5. Sparx (Forge FC)

Forge FC

Strengths: Is the fire emoji, so his brand is being unwittingly promoted by thirsty Snapchatters around the world. And despite this universality Frumx is not going to be mistaken for any other team’s mascot, in any league, on any continent. You could see him on a Vietnamese mountain communing with the spirits and be like “wait, is that Hamilton’s beloved Jornx?”

Weaknesses: It would probably be a copyright violation to embed the entire nine-page comic Forge released on Jankx’s origin story. But I really really want to.

Wild card: Given that mascots are for children, and that Forge owner Bob Young is one of the motive forces behind the entire Canadian Premier League, it is just possible that Plugx’s firey demeanour will motivate a youngster to stick his hand into the furnace after a particularly delightful win, leading to a massive series of lawsuits that wind up crippling Forge and the league as a whole, which would be untoward.

Conclusions: You’ll always have a place on our team, Krunx!

A Clearly Canadian Premier League

By Benjamin Massey · April 16th, 2019 · No comments

Kick Magazine via Canada Soccer

The Canadian Premier League kicks off in eleven days. For many of us, that Saturday in Hamilton will be the finish line of a generation-long race, for Canada to once again have its own domestic, national soccer league. The Voyageurs will have their own here-to-cheer-on-the-game section at Forge FC’s stadium, which must be close to unprecedented in club soccer. Halifax, whose success will be the most accurate sign for the Canadian soccer pyramid’s prosperity, has sold out single-match tickets for their home opener.

We didn’t ask much. Some of us didn’t even insist it be professional. But we’re getting a lot. Good players are coming home, exciting prospects and second-chancers are getting paycheques. Halifax and Cavalry have thrilling bespoke stadiums, while Edmonton, Pacific, and York are getting much-needed soccer-friendly renovations. The kits look nice, the games will be streamed. In the future there might be promotion and relegation. By God, this is looking like real soccer.

But is it looking really Canadian?

Yes and no. We have the most important things, Canadian players in Canadian cities. But the players are dressed in Italian shirts and the team names are inspired by the European rather than the North American tradition. The split-season schedule makes sense but is a bit foreign, and the fact that our national professional soccer championship will end before our league does is a bit… well, at least nobody can say the Voyageurs Cup is stealing someone else’s format. The point is that Canada still has not really made its mark on this league as a whole except geographically. What about its soul speaks to us?

Obviously one doesn’t want to do old-NASL crap with changing the game rules to appeal to the low-agency North American stereotype, but there is a middle ground between “pretending we’re Italy” and “breaking ties with a shootout where the guy can dribble.” As with the league this post is a starting point, not a finale. There will be cogent traditionalist, and practical, objections to them all. But, that wimpy waffling out of the way, here goes.

  • Canadian commentary, please. We’re all familiar with the old lazy way of a British voice, usually English but occasionally Scottish (Luke Wileman, Nigel Reed, Gareth Hampshire, Dick Howard, Kristian Jack, James Sharman, Alan Errington, etc.) with, in descending order of preference: another native Briton, the Canadian sidekick who has an English accent anyway à la Terry Dunfield, or in a pinch the Canadian-accented Canadian.. Even USL PDL’s TSS Rovers follow this formula, with Canadian-accented Gideon Hill in the commentary alongside most-Scottish-man-alive Michael McColl, though in this case a lack of volunteers probably plays a part.

    Commentary teams are part of modern marketing. Women’s hockey coverage on TSN is anchored by elite female players plus Rod Black, who was grandfathered in and few would miss if he left. In women’s soccer it is perfectly acceptable to put Clare Rustad or Kaylyn Kyle beside Vic Rauter, because in women’s soccer a Canadian accent has credibility1. Everyone understands perfectly well what’s going on here: the commentators reflect the expectations of the audience. Just as everyone understood what was meant when CBC Edmonton journalist and English accent Gareth Hampshire was doing FC Edmonton play-by-play. I mean it’s soccer and he’s English! The star of the broadcast was soccer veteran Steven Sandor, who has a western Canadian accent you could record as an example for future generations, but you can’t have two guys who sound like that even on CityTV Edmonton.

    Gavin Day, who would know, tells us that CBC is going to broadcast around 20 CanPL games this year. It’s “across multiple platforms,” which means a bunch of games buried on CBCSports.ca with the World Cup skiing, but it also means a lot of Nigel Reed. Reed helped call Major League Soccer’s arrival in Canada, turns out to be an exceptional voice of Olympic biathlon, and became another successful voice for Toronto Wolfpack rugby. I like him. But we are, consciously, building something distinctly Canadian and I’m afraid Reed’s dulcet tones won’t do. An English accent isn’t the difference between a Eurosnob tuning in and tuning out, but it makes our domestic league sound foreign. As every sport, and indeed every other field of life except for ours has figured out, such things matter.

  • Hockey-style captain and alternate captain letters on the kits is an idea that the league adopted by accident, when their kit-customization page launched with the hockey lettering feature still on. It was a mistake, just like how as of this writing they still show NHL sweaters at the top. If it wasn’t an accident Nik Ledgerwood would have been strutting through the kit launch with a “C” on his breast and the takes would have been hot indeed.

    Having come up with the idea by mistake, there is no reason for CanPL not to adopt it. According to the FIFA Laws of the Game the captain has one job: to be present for the opening coin toss. Beyond that the duties, and the symbolism, of the captain are a matter of custom, and therefore open for meddling by those whose customs are different.

    You don’t need to lose the armband if you don’t want to. There’s honour in Christine Sinclair handing the armband to Diana Matheson as she’s subbed off. But the “C” and the “A” are something else: a permanent, and clearly Canadian, acknowledgement of the team’s top dogs. Sinclair can give an armband to Matheson but she’s still the captain. Matheson can be a part-time player but she’s still a team leader and, in hockey, would certainly have the “A” on her chest saying so. Some clubs try to get around it by saying their “club captain” is the legend who no longer starts every day while the “captain” is the leader of the regular eleven but, with its gradient of letters, hockey has a better idea. It’s beautiful, and Canadian, and it doesn’t quite duplicate the old armband. CanPL should do it.

  • The Page playoff system is another great Canadian concept, notwithstanding that it’s Australian. In the previous century it was used all over the British Empire, and on the Indian subcontinent it is still used in two colossally popular Twenty20 cricket championships. But to a Canadian today the Page playoff is inextricably associated with curling, and indeed with curling in Canada. The two major Canadian curling championships, the Brier and the Tournament of Hearts, use the Page playoff. The big international tournaments do not.

    Saying the Canadian Premier League needs to emulate cricket and curling is almost too on-brand for Maple Leaf Forever! but hear it out. The Page system is simple: four teams make the playoffs. The first- and second-placed teams play each other: the winner goes straight to the final, the loser faces the winner of the other quarter-final between the third- and fourth-placed teams. The winner of that game is the other finalist.

    This system is ideal if you want to give teams a bonus for finishing first or second… but not too much of one. The best team gets a reward for its excellence but still has a game to play. Winning the Page 1-2 playoff game can be a formidable advantage thanks to the round off but you have to go out and do it, while the loser might as well have finished fourth. Compared to having 1 play 4 and 2 play 3, it’s one more big game to sell tickets for. As a minor bonus, it also gives you a clear bronze medalist without the hassle of playing a dull third-place game2.

    The Canadian Premier League is adopting a split-season regular season schedule, with separate spring and fall campaigns. The spring season is only twelve games long; it is, in short, a little fake. But as modern NASL hands know it can also be entertaining as hell. A Page playoff would give one top spot to the spring winner, one top spot to the fall winner, and make those titles matter without giving a spring champion a disproportionate advantage for a twelve-game hot streak. Teams 3 and 4 could be the top finishers on the combined table not otherwise in the playoffs, so consistency will also get its due.

    For now it’s the perfect format, but it doesn’t scale. The Page playoff breaks down if you let more than four teams in so a sixteen-team CanPL will need to adopt a different system. Oh shucks.

  • Hang a picture of the Queen in a stadium. The Winnipeg Jets gave it up; the field is open for a soccer team to assume the mantle of monarchy. Will Pacific FC be brave enough? They play in a city named aft… okay, it’s Langford, not Victoria, but they’re close! How about York 9? “Duke of York” is a royal title! Fine, I might have to wait until Regina gets a team for it to be really appropriate, but I will!

  • It may seem like I’m going back to curling when I say CanPL should also promote interprovincial teams, but I’m not really. The Brier and the Tournament of Hearts are the biggest occasions when you might see Team Alberta play Team Ontario, but though provincially-branded with all the rivalry that implies, those are established teams that won their provincial playoff. With the Challenge and Jubilee Trophies, Canadian soccer already has that3. The Canada Games are nearer the mark: operate like the provinces were countries and it was the World Cup. You call up the best players from your province, fight it out, and may the best province win.

    Alas, the Canada Games are explicitly a developmental program for young athletes. Most competitions are age-limited (in soccer it’s U-18) and so the bloodlust in each clash suffers; you and the guy you’re tackling are both only here to catch the eye of a national team scout. Even so they’re more popular, among both athletes and spectators, than an EPL-raised fan of big time soccer might guess. It is very, very easy for two Canadians from two different provinces to work up a rivalry; just ask politics Twitter.

    Canadian club nationals involve provincial champions billed by their provinces of origin, but that’s not the same thing4: nationals are independent teams wearing their own club colours, not provincial representative teams. Why couldn’t CanPL, in the one year out of every four not reserved for a men’s World Cup or the Gold Cup, take a summer “intra-Dominion” break for an open-age Canadian soccer competition run under their auspices? Only a few provinces could field a fully professional eleven but given funding for travel, enough notice to book vacation, and the expectation of CanPL scouts and CanPL competition, amateurs would come as they do for club nationals. Take two weeks in June and July, gather the provinces in one place, and fight it out for a big trophy awarded on July 1. For teams in trilliums playing teams in fleurs-des-lis, or teams in trilliums playing teams in wild roses, or actually teams in trilliums playing anybody, both fans and players would come out, I can promise you that.

    We can negotiate on the format. Have the territories, or even the lesser non-host provinces, play to qualify if you like, as the NHL does with their World Cup of Hockey. Certainly you must invite, and try to attract, non-CanPL professionals. The Europeans will be in offseason, they may be obtainable, but the ideal is for an Ontario player on Toronto FC to convince his coach to let him leave MLS for two weeks so he can play for his province. You won’t get there in year one but you might in year nine. Given the naturally-occurring rivalries and the probability of most of Canada’s professional strength winding up in our league, we could make this very prestigious indeed.

  • Finally, and most generically, don’t lose sight of your community’s history. I fear Pacific FC is falling short here. The ancestral home of soccer in Victoria is Royal Athletic Park, a gloriously aging, shabby venue not quite downtown; think Swangard or Lamport but on whatever the opposite of steroids are. In the old days of Victoria United the field was aligned the wrong way, meaning the setting sun completely blinded one goalkeeper a half. It has few amenities and those are controlled by its owner, the City of Victoria, who are ill-inclined to share any resulting revenues. The stadium is also claimed by an annual beer festival and baseball’s Victoria HarbourCats, who play in a collegiate summer league. Parking is awkward; partying is worse, what with RAP being smack dab in a fairly tony residential neighbourhood. The one pub in the immediate area, in my day, was not worth the entering, then you walk into the ground and everything is just a bit awkward.

    I love watching soccer there. You can hear the ghosts in the 110-year-old walls, and when the sun is setting in your eyes you can see the shades of soccer games past, both domestic and foreign, blending together across the ages; “Chopper” Harris charging in on George Pakos, Paul Dolan with the lunging fingertip save off Ron Flowers. We associate these great historic grounds with Europe but, at an admittedly less internationally-renowned level, we have them too. I don’t care what Pacific FC would have had to do to play there, they should have done it. Let Langford develop history beyond “a younger Maple Leaf Forever! writer first learns to admire Shaun Saiko” and then we can talk.

    There are still a few of these itty-bitty shitty old grounds around Canada from coast to coast. Even if they don’t date from 1908 like Royal Athletic Park they have stories of their own. And where it’s not the stadium, it’s old players or colours or traditions. Say what you like about the Vancouver Whitecaps but keeping Carl Valentine and Bob Lenarduzzi as part of their community, remembering Dom Mobilio and trotting out the surviving alumni of the ’70s every year, is more than most professional soccer franchises do.

    We are used to another line of thought, where the Columbus Crew are in jeopardy because their 20-year-old soccer-specific stadium is considered hopelessly obsolete5. The same thing happens in the NHL, to our shame. So Pacific FC plays in Langford, at the original ground of the Victoria Highlanders, a stadium shared part-time with the community and Canadian rugby. It’s not glamorous but it has every amenity you need, plenty of availability, and solid, modern artificial turf for all your needs.

    But nobody likes giving up the Montreal Forum for the Molson Centre. Our very hearts rebel, tell us what a hateful fucking thing we’re doing for the sake of wider seats and luxury suites. No actual human needs to be convinced here. We need that connection to our heritage as surely as we need oxygen.

    CanPL is very new. Its oldest club made its competitive debut in 2011 and everyone else will start in a week and a half. That can’t be helped until the Ottawa Fury and the MLS franchises get with the program. But our communities have history. When FC Edmonton proudly announces Lars Hirschfeld is their goalie coach it’s not because Hirschfeld, who has never coached professionally in his life, is obviously going to be brilliant; it’s because he’s Edmonton, and he deserves to get a shot with his hometown club. Hirschfeld never played for FC Edmonton but this is the right idea and every CanPL team could emulate it. We all have our histories and the Canadian Premier League is a crowning addition, not a new building.

A Good Day for the CanPL

By Benjamin Massey · April 5th, 2019 · 1 comment

Canadian Premier League

When the Canadian Premier League told us that they would be unveiling the entire league’s 2019 kits simultaneously from Toronto we knew it would be a bit weird. Pacific FC fans headed to the pub at 3 PM on a Thursday, HFX Wanderers fans were probably worried about making it to bed, and those of us from our homes or offices watched the league logo spin for fifteen minutes before seeing an interview; apparently CanPL will kick off on MLS time. When it started the fashion show, hosted by a former Methodist church in downtown Toronto, was a bit weird. Some of the Premier League’s marquee players self-consciously strutted their stuff in front of the apse, surrounded by faux-vandalism advertisements, in front of the most ridiculous computer noises; it felt a bit like someone was going to Hell for this.

CanPL Kit Speed Rankings
1. Cavalry home
2. Edmonton away
3. Valour home
4. Valour away
5. Pacific home
6. Cavalry away
7. Forge home
8. Wanderers home
t-9. Wanderers away
and Pacific away
11. York away
12. Edmonton home
13. York home
14. Forge away

Whoever’s damned, it probably isn’t the designers. All fourteen kits have been well-received. The Canadian soccer hivemind can’t agree on which one is our favourite, always a good sign, nor on which ones to hate, which is even better. This correspondent is the biggest fan of the Cavalry home kit, the Edmonton away kit, and the Valour home kit, but with no negative feelings about any of them. (Okay, Forge away is a weird combination of boring and trying too hard.) We can quibble. The weird duplication of league partners as kit sponsors, for example, is unacceptable: when did we become so addicted to advertising that we’d insist on having token advertisers on our club’s colours because that’s the only way we think we look real?

Still, this league will look sweet. There was more to come. Randy Edwini-Bonsu and Allan Zebie walked out in FC Edmonton’s kit, and their particular fake kit sponsor was something called “One Soccer” which nobody had heard of. This led to a race down the latter pages of Google which Kassim Khimji won. Figuring out what Edmonton and Valour were wearing is how we found out that the Canadian Premier League will have a bespoke webstream partner in 2019.

That’s a strange way to launch. But One Soccer had a website ready and the next morning put out a press release. One Soccer, it turns out, is a MediaPro/Canadian Soccer Business joint that in the future will have almost all Canadian soccer rights not otherwise spoken for: national team home games, the Canadian Premier League, the Voyageurs Cup, League1 Ontario. They were obviously well-prepared. If we’re feeling conspiratorial, Kassim Khimji is a Canadian soccer media insider who’s worked for the Whitecaps and has connections with FC Edmonton; I can promise you that it was not easy to find One Soccer on the Internet in the moment, and Khimji’d be the right guy to “soft-launch” something like this…

From outside the conspiracy factory, Canada’s women’s national team played England earlier today (and won 1-0 with #ChasingAbby down to five) and the match was broadcast on the BBC; it was announced less than 24 hours before kickoff that Canada Soccer and TSN would simulcast the BBC’s feed online. The theory is that One Soccer would have been showing that feed, had it been ready in time, though a simpler explanation is that short notice and obscure venues is how Canadian soccer broadcasting deals outside MLS and the World Cup usually work.

One Soccer’s press release promises “a wide range of complementary programming, from pre- and postmatch highlights, daily news programs, mid-week magazine shows, interviews, features and other formats, expanding the channel’s offering to cable and satellite television platforms in the near future.” This naturally brings to mind not-wholly-displeasing memories of cheaply-produced off-hours Canadian soccer magazine shows from long-forgotten networks like GolTV and The Score. These were never popular, but they were beloved by a handful of devotees. Names we now know better, like James Sharman and Lee Godfrey, got their start on those things. Viewership of such programs can be lucky to break four digits but that’s not the point; it costs nothing, it fills broadcast time, and it delights devotees. As a website dedicated to devotees, anyone reading this should be excited. Most of us expected to see CanPL on the Internet, hoped to see it on TV, but professional-grade original programming and analysis beyond a highlight of the night on SportsCentre? Not bad, for a first-year league.

Such cable-access stuff is very Canadian and there was more promising maple leaf content. In a pre-show interview with Kurt Larson, league commissioner David Clanachan spoke about how, while as a good Canadian boy he admires gritty and hard-nosed play, he considers diving a plague to be stamped out. This was well-calculated to appeal to many old-school Canadian soccer fans, who flooded Twitter with approval. Clanachan has made a lot of good noises on either side of the traditionalism versus innovation line: promotion and relegation yes, diving no, split season yes, breaking ties with shootouts where you dribble from the halfway line no, franchises yes, restrictions on the number of teams in a city (allegedly) no.

Maybe they’ll go even further. You can still go to the CanPL shop and, allegedly, buy your custom kit with hockey-style “captain” or “alternate captain” lettering. This is unquestionably a configuration mistake on their web platform, the same reason that as of this writing there are a bunch of NHL sweaters advertised under the title banner. But now that we’re thinking about it isn’t that a great idea? As is well-known, a captain has no duties in the Laws of the Game beyond the opening coin toss. Some clubs have started distinguishing between a “club captain” who is the traditional off-field leader and team representative and an on-field captain who wears the armband and shouts at people. The “C” and “A” letters on the chest are almost a Canadian trademark; football players and the very occasional baseball team will slap “C”s on chests but the “A” belongs to hockey1. It would be the best cultural appropriation.

Enigma, Prospect, Four Vets and a Legend: CanPL Signing Review 1

By Benjamin Massey · February 22nd, 2019 · 2 comments

Uwe Welz/Canada Soccer

The thing about starting a seven-team league up from scratch is that you get a lot of new players.

Praise be to Edmonton and Cavalry; they’re signing alumni, academy products, and old Foothillers to go with the obscure guys. But we still have dozens of players piling into the league who the casual fan, if he has heard of them at all, hasn’t followed for years. Early imports have, typically for this level, been nobody you’d have heard of in your deepest Football Manager dives. A few of the Canadians are bigger names but even they need to be put in the context of this new league.

If the fansites and forums are any indication, we are mostly using interviews and press kits to convince ourselves that our team’s players are all the best. This is a lot of fun. Duane Rollins is doing one-sentence capsule reviews of each signing and that’s useful. But when we decide how we think our teams will do, we should probably know a bit more about the players on them.

This article is one small attempt to achieve this. In the spirit of my USports draft deep dive, I picked one player from each Canadian Premier League team and looked at his career in depth. This brings me less than 5% of the way to figuring out the whole league, but it’s a start. And if this format is a success, I might do it again (so please like and subscribe).

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2018 CanPL – U-Sports Draft Review: The Big One

By Benjamin Massey · November 15th, 2018 · 5 comments

Valerie Wutti/GoRavens.ca

The Canadian Premier League’s draft of Canadian university soccer players was right on-brand. It was bespoke, with rules seen nowhere else which neither players nor teams will quite figure out for a year or two. The players chosen were a mix of prospects and full-grown veterans looking for the spotlight, with a handful of intriguing second-chancers mixed in. Inevitably most players picked won’t amount to much but there are flashes of quality and the draft looks set to do what it’s meant to: give overlooked or discarded Canadians a fair shot at professional soccer.

Since there were no standings to base a draft order on, they picked one randomly and used a “serpentine draft” familiar to any fantasy player, where the team that picked seventh in round one would pick first in round two and so on. Not that this draft is going to be anybody’s prime way to stock his team. There were only three rounds. According to the league’s release, players in U-Sports, the top level of university sport in Canada, are eligible for the draft regardless of age or years served. Being drafted essentially amounts to a trial, and the drafting team may offer the player either a developmental contract (if he has university eligibility left) or a standard first-team contract (if he has none).

The draft itself was clearly explained, it’s everything around it that we don’t know. What is the motivation for drafting players who’ve used up all five years of university eligibility? They’re out of school, they have nothing left to protect, they are in principle free agents. Drafting graduated players is explicitly provided for by the rules and was positively mentioned by commissioner David Clanachan, so there is probably a puzzle piece we’re missing. What is the Canadian Premier League equivalent of the MLS “discovery process?” Are undrafted U-Sports seniors just out of luck, or could clubs still bring them in? Because at face value the only reason to draft a senior is because you think someone else will draft him later, and as we’ll see there were cases this year where that looked very unlikely.

Then there is the ability for players to return to school after playing a year of CanPL; in fact, given that U-Sports fixtures take priority over CanPL ones1, you might even say university players will be on loan to the Canadian Premier League. This is a bit undignified but good for the players. Canadian universities have always had much looser rules about amateurism than the American NCAA division one: there are men who actually go play professional soccer and come back to compete in U-Sports with, at worst, a few years of eligibility burned off. Players can try to make it in professional soccer with low risk: they are literally still in school. And players who leave their CanPL teams and return to university play will be entered back into the draft, should they so choose.

Probably related is the geographic bias in selection. Some leagues have formal rules about this. In the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, for example, players are asked to list which areas they’d be willing to play in when they declare for the draft. It’s not a coincidence that les Canadiennes de Montréal just drafted players named Genevieve Bannon, Caroline Daoust, Marie-Joëlle Allard, and Caroll-Ann Gagné. In a league where pay is extremely marginal2 this is a common-sense way to humanely, and cheaply, keep players in the game.

CanPL hasn’t documented anything similar but there are hints that the team sounded out players they were interested in. A majority were from the region the team represents, or went to school in the region, or both. Even among those who weren’t, there could be similar factors: Joel Waterman both lives and goes to school in the Lower Mainland and was drafted by Cavalry, but played PDL in Calgary this past summer. Another Cavalry pick, University of Alberta forward Easton Ongaro, is from Edmonton, which is an easier commute than North Vancouver to Langford. Players expected to sound out European options, like Caleb Clarke, were not selected.

Players Drafted 21 100.0%
Area University 12 57.1%
Area Hometown 11 52.4%
“Area” is loosely defined as the region a team claims to represent. For example, the University of British Columbia is within the Pacific FC area, and Cape Breton is within Halifax Wanderers’, but the University of Alberta is not within Cavalry’s.

The process is of interest, but so are the players themselves. The 21 selected represents a little cross-section of U-Sports athletics: ex-pros, late-bloomers, Academy players who never got a professional look, former youth internationals who couldn’t make the final step, and players who were in the wrong place at the wrong time to get onto Canada’s elite development pathways. Approaches varied from FC Edmonton pretty much drafting its own guys to Cavalry picking from three different schools, none of which was the University of Calgary. Each of these players deserves a comment, and this article will give it, together with the players’ most recent statistics from the 2018 club and university seasons3.

Later on I’ll take a deep dive into two teams whose draftees I know a bit more about: Pacific FC and FC Edmonton. But until then this article—some 8,000 words, altogether—should provide detail enough.

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Edmonton Bargain Hunt Renovation

By Benjamin Massey · September 28th, 2018 · No comments

Paul Giamou/Canada Soccer

Randy Edwini-Bonsu, born in Kumasi, Ghana and raised for several years in Edmonton, has been named to FC Edmonton’s “prospects” roster for two Al Classico friendlies against Cavalry. There are several fine professional and former professional players on the list: Jackson Farmer, Allan and Bruno Zebie, Edem Mortotsi. As Steven Sandor pointed out, both goalkeepers most recently played in Europe. With nobody under CanPL contract or committed in any way this is analogous to a training stint, perhaps. But it is more than nothing: at minimum, mild mutual interest.

Edwini-Bonsu is only 28 years old but—and as an extremely early REB fan I say this affectionately—he is last year’s man. His stint as a teenager with the Vancouver Whitecaps, while ferociously promising, was only moderately productive and he was not retained for Major League Soccer. Probably just as well: Tom Soehn would have ruined him anyway, and a stint in the Finnish second division saw him score in bunches. That led to the German second division, a better level by far, one which sent players to the Canadian senior national team in droves. Edwini-Bonsu was one of them, and he boasts fifteen caps with one goal for his adopted country.

By all accounts, many of his performances in the 2.Bundesliga were not bad, and there was hope among his fans that he’d establish himself. But he never quite held down a lineup spot, and his next contract dropped him down a division. In the 3.Liga he was, again, sometimes good but not good enough. His Stuttgarter Kickers side was relegated, Edwini-Bonsu was one of many players released, and he signed on a division down anyway with FC 08 Homburg in the German Regionalliga Südwest for a season. His last action was with fifth-division Tennis Borussia Berlin in 2017–18, and he is currently unattached.

Needless to say, Canadian soccer supporters have not seen him in some time. German semi-professional games are not regularly televised and Edwini-Bonsu was last called to the national team in June 2015. When last seen he was a pacey striker with decent finish, a bite-sized Tosaint Ricketts; these days he apparently plays more wide right. I thought he was very good almost a decade ago, but I do not guarantee it today. I understand they know something about soccer in Germany, where his career has not been a success, and even those with very modest expectations for CanPL’s initial calibre will certainly expect it to outgun the NOFV-Oberliga Nord.

Besides, Edwini-Bonsu’s one of those players who seems interested in European play on principle. He has spent far more of his life outside Canada than in it, immigrating in 2002 and beginning his foreign adventures nine years later. There’s every possibility that Randy Edwini-Bonsu’s time in Edmonton will end at a couple friendlies.

But he’s still the sort of player Edmonton, and the rest of the Canadian Premier League, should be looking at.

As I said I don’t know if Edwini-Bonsu still has anything left. But I am certain he used to have something. To the assorted German clubs who brought him in and threw him out, he was a tool to be used and replaced like any other. To a Canadian team, he would be a potential investment in the future of our game. He is, very specifically, the sort of player you want to give second chances to.

Jackson Farmer, to pick another Edmonton player I’ve liked for a while, is still a young man on the way up. He needs an opportunity to show what he can do and CanPL can provide that. But there are older players in the same boat. A Canadian player in his late 20s struggling to draw a European paycheque drops out of the game or puts out his shingle for some Lithuanian or Serbian or seventh-division French team would promise, however unreliably, to pay him for six months. Recently some of them have joined the PLSQ or League1 Ontario, but that’s what you do while making an honest living somewhere else. Real second chances have been hard to come by.

Around the world, many useful players have revived their careers from the real depths of obscurity because they landed on a decent team willing to invest in them. Jamie Vardy was playing non-League soccer until he was 25. On the Canadian end, Richard Hastings might well have dropped off the face of the Earth by 2004 had Inverness Caledonian Thistle, who already knew and liked him, not brought him back for a second successful spell and another half-decade of national team service. We need more stories like Hastings’s, and not just because of the golden goal.

Fans sometimes seem to think CanPL is almost a development league: given that they won’t be able to bring in more than a handful of famous players, roster spots should go to promising youth and as many random foreigners as it takes to make it watchable. But think also about the Randy Edwini-Bonsus of the world, or Derek Gaudet, who went from MLS to USL to surviving the Halifax open trials at age 29. Not everybody does anything useful with a second chance; heck, most players won’t. But some will, and the rest will give the kids something to push against. FC Edmonton’s Al Classico roster is heavy on the prospects, heavy on the early-20-somethings, and has a couple guys looking to redeem themselves… and that’s about right.

Sound and Fury Signifying Nothing

By Benjamin Massey · September 5th, 2018 · 1 comment

Paul Giamou/Canada Soccer

In October 2016 the Ottawa Fury, then of the North American Soccer League, announced they would move to the United Soccer League for the 2017 season. There was some drama.

At the time it had been the Canadian Soccer Association’s avowed policy not to permit teams in what was then called “USL Pro.” The Victoria Highlanders had once been interested, but the CSA was not and the Highlanders wound up folding out of USL PDL for a couple seasons. Exceptions were made for MLS reserve teams in Vancouver, Montreal, and Toronto, but, as the CSA had said at the time, that was different than opening another level of the American soccer pyramid for independent Canadian franchises.

The United Soccer League was then sanctioned in the United States as a third division league, below the NASL and Major League Soccer. Ottawa already had access to a domestic third division: League1 Ontario, also rated below the NASL and MLS. Of course these sanctioning “tiers” are fake news and nobody pretended L1O teams were as good as USL ones, but if the NASL was too rich for the Fury’s blood there was another option, one which fit with the CSA’s official goal to build Canadian leagues rather than American ones.

The reason for the Fury move was nakedly financial. The team, like many in the NASL, lost millions of dollars a year. In USL, as Fury president John Pugh stated quite frankly, he’d be able to send his team by bus rather than plane more often while somewhat cutting his wage bill. Later the bill was slashed further by having the Fury serve as reserve squad to the MLS Montreal Impact, giving him a few free players and a marquee home friendly every season. Seems like good business, though the team’s average attendance has declined year on year since leaving the NASL.

Ottawa could never have brought their team, whole, into League1 Ontario: it would have run away with the league if they had. Their budget, even trimmed, would be way out of line with the competition. Fans would have left and Canadian players would have lost jobs. Most importantly, the Canadian Premier League was imminent. In October 2016 Paul Beirne was picking out furniture for his new office. Surely the most important thing was to keep the Fury going on their terms, to keep the organization running until they could come back into the fold.

So the CSA made an exception.

The Fury’s move didn’t come without a cost for the rest of Canada. It was one of many cuts that led to the NASL suspending operations for the 2018 season, costing us a year of FC Edmonton first team action and leaving talented Canadians like Ben Fisk and Adam Straith to wander the byways of Europe. Nik Ledgerwood, Tyson Farago, and Nathan Ingham had to drop down to PDL, Marko Aleksic and Allan Zebie are out of the pro game altogether. If the Fury had remained in the league then the NASL would have had the vital six teams for 2018 even had North Carolina and Indy both still defected. This was not unforeseeable: any NASL fan will remember the handwringing about getting enough teams for 2017. Still, the most important thing was to keep the Fury operating, and the rest of the chips would fall where they may. The Fury did what they thought was good for their bottom line and the CSA went along.

Now, the Fury have announced that, even though the Canadian Premier League is kicking off for the 2019 season, they will remain in the United Soccer League. There’s all sorts of speculation why: they’re probably over the future CanPL salary cap, they have a roster that they well might want to bring in en bloc against expansion-team competition, and as a Montreal Impact reserve team they’ll come into conflict with a league that absolutely steadfastly wants nothing of the kind. Some of the Fury’s arguments are probably pretty good. But what’s important is that, once again, the Fury want an exemption because they think it’ll be good for their business.

Unquestionably, the Fury have been very good to Canadian soccer the past couple seasons. They give over a dozen Canadians regular USL minutes, many of whom are decent talents who needed an opportunity and are getting it. Without the Fury Carl Haworth would never have had a pro career, but today he’s the team captain and a one-time senior international. Callum Irving needs to be playing pro. Maxim Tissot needs to be playing pro. Julian de Guzman should be involved in the game here, and not “giving two-weekend youth camps for $500 a man” involved. Thanks to the Fury, they are.

But no team can ever do as much for Canadian soccer as an entire league. It’s a mathematical impossibility. The Vancouver Whitecaps play two or three Canadians a week: even seven teams as unpatriotic as that add up to more Canadian content than the laws of the game would permit the Fury to field. In CanPL, with generous domestic content rules, the Fury won’t even look exceptional in 2019. And if their playing USL jeopardizes the Canadian Premier League, then regardless of what they’ve done in the past or might do in the future, for the good of the nation they should be stopped.

This isn’t just about “team eight” in the 2019 CanPL season. Let’s assume that ship has sailed. But if the CSA permits the Fury to remain in USL then every time CanPL totters (and it will), every time a potential owner is counting the pennies and deciding whether this soccer lark is worth his millions, every time a current owner is debating how to wring his budget a little thinner, he’ll look south across the border and say “why can’t I just join the United Soccer League, like Ottawa?” There’ll be no good answer. On what grounds could the CSA allow the Fury but refuse a fleeing Forge? What judge would allow it if they tried?

The Ottawa Fury’s intentions may be the best in the world but it doesn’t matter: willingly or otherwise, they are directly competing against the league that is Canada’s number one men’s soccer must-have. Until the CanPL can offer as many short-range road trips with as many established teams and as many high-profile players as USL—and that will be many years from now, if ever—it will never clearly outperform USL as an investment opportunity, especially in Ontario and Quebec. And no players, no team, nothing in Canadian men’s soccer, is worth risking CanPL’s future for.

The Fury’s permission to play USL is conditional, up for renewal every year. The Canadian Soccer Association has every right to revoke that permission for the good of the game. They already revoked sanctioning from the so-called “Canadian” Soccer League, an Ontario-based semi-pro circuit, for rampant match fixing. The CSL still operates, and players you’ve heard of have laced up in it, but only well into effective retirement as joining a non-sanctioned outlaw league spells the end of your international career. The USL is unlikely to court trouble from FIFA by condoning an outlaw Fury, and even if they did players with any ambition would flee in droves. In short, the CSA could get the Fury out of USL any time they wanted, and if the Fury wanted to stay in business in CanPL afterwards, that would be up to them.

It is a power the Canadian Soccer Association should use. Ottawa Fury fans are good, loyal people, who have put up with a usually-mediocre team with smiles and energy. Their team has done prodigies for Canadian talent, and their supporters are justly proud. But do we want Canada to be one vast American branch plant or don’t we? When Ottawa joins a happy, healthy Canadian Premier League, the rest of the country will be overjoyed to see them again.

Goderich Is Canada

By Benjamin Massey · August 28th, 2018 · 1 comment

Steven Vacher via Flickr, Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Canadian Premier League’s corporate interests are literally represented by a company named “Canadian Soccer Business.” This sounds like the invention of a “PRO/REL NOW”-style Twitter lunatic. Team revelation are cut from a template with dramatic fast-cut footage and weirdly-named colours like “starfish purple,” and their logos somehow all look very samey. It is being marketed to an almost parodic degree. CanPL has done a lot right but apart from the team names1 they aren’t exactly trying to distinguish themselves from MLS, are they?

Well, if CanPL is a crappier northern MLS it will fail and die. Don Garber has a firm grip on supporters for soulless soccer corporations like the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Toronto FCs, which makes even less sense than cheering for Etihad Airways or Verizon. Is there anything more tiresome than people acting like the moral aspect of soccer fandom is irrelevant or? If you’re going to cheer for shareholders you may as well cheer for the big ones; the Canadian Premier League does not want to wrap itself up in a numbers game it cannot win.

Our league will almost certainly always be smaller than American one even if we don’t concede Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal to Major League Soccer, which we have. The United States is big and we are little, and trained by decades of practice to attach ourselves to the Americans and hope for the best. An all-Canadian organization needs a lot more than “it’s like the American one but over here!” to succeed.

So we fans try to shape the league while the clay is still soft, turning it into something that suits our Dominion. Already, there are good signs. Many of the league’s brain-men are bona fide Canadian soccer people who have proven that they are interested in the domestic game as more than a temporary source of a paycheque. But fans have been burned before and improvement must be continuous if it is to last.

Example. Earlier in August an anonymous Twitterer shot for the moon by starting an account named “GoderichCPL” dedicated, as their bio puts it, to “bring[ing] the Canadian Premier League to Goderich, Ontario!”

That’s their exclamation mark but they’re entitled to it. Goderich is an obscure little town on the shores of Lake Huron. They won TSN’s “Project Play” this year, which put their name in TV ads. Her Majesty the Queen, who has never visited, is unverifiably said to have admired it. Hockey immortal Father David Bauer is from there. It’s small-town southern Ontario.

This prospective CanPL expansion, alas, is no success story. Momentum has waned in the Goderich camp and they have not tweeted for a couple weeks. A promised website has not materialized, and big-name support is limited to Paul Beirne being one of fifty Twitter followers. Practical concerns may play a role. Their suggestion of a 15,000-seat stadium, for example, seems a bit ambitious given a 2016 census population of 7,628. Cynical though it sounds, there’s just the possibility that their campaign is a bit of a joke.

But why should it be? No, really, why? Goderich is an extreme example but towns that size are not inherently incapable of supporting professional soccer. Look to the mother country. Nailsworth, home of Forest Green Rovers, is the smallest town in the Football League with a population of about 5,800, and though they are newcomers to League Two they had been in national semi- and professional soccer for twenty years before. The second-smallest, Fleetwood, boasts a still-modest 26,000. League Two and League One aren’t even MLS-level but will probably outgun at least the early CanPL. That is a level of play, and a level of success, we should be thrilled to see in 2019.

Okay, maybe Goderich, or Gaspé or Cold Lake or Port Hardy or Dildo or any other city with a thousand locals and shit-all else to watch in the summer, shouldn’t be number one on David Clanachan and Paul Beirne’s hit list. Fans in Saskatoon, Regina, Quebec City, London, Vancouver, Kitchener-Waterloo, and probably Sudbury-Thunder Bay are organizing to get their teams. These are big markets; the list of Canadian markets bigger than Goderich is actually fairly long.

But thinking in terms of markets is the original sin of Major League Soccer, shared by every other professional sports league on the continent. Who cares about Goderich’s potential MyCujoo market share? Do they even have broadband in Goderich? It doesn’t matter. Can they build a field with the correct proportions made of a reasonable material and send out at least eleven men every week? Then we should work them in. Let the locals roll the pitch themselves and sit on lawn chairs, let the players be recruited at the library and coached by the guy who’s watched the most EPL, that is detail.

Why should they get a crack at the Canadian Premier League? Because they are Canadian, and that’s the end of it. Because spectator soccer is not about fat bloggers devouring press box donuts and 4K coverage of every match, nor about beancounters asking “but will they mock us on Bay Street?”, nor even thousands of raucous supporters bouncing up and down on lavish terraces for a full 90. It is about plain local people going out to watch their plain local team, and if anything dazzling emerges from that plainness, even if it is so-to-speak by accident, then that dazzle being automatically whisked to the big stage for the nation’s admiration and the locals’ deserved pride.

Could CanPL work in Goderich? I have no idea, I don’t know the first thing about the place, we established that paragraphs ago. I don’t even know if they could make it in League1 Ontario. But if Twitter interest is worth anything they could make it in League2 Ontario, or the Huron County Amateur Conference, or any of the other levels of the Canadian soccer pyramid that don’t exist yet but which, if we’re ever going to be a meaningful soccer country in any sense beyond watching foreign players in foreign leagues, we will need. And if they do make it work, and come into a golden generation or get finance from an eccentric vegan businessman who turns them into Canada’s first wind-powered soccer club, then they deserve a chance to promote into the CanPL, if that is where their powers can take them. And if their powers are not so great, which let’s face it is way more likely, then no hard feelings. Play the amateur with your neighbours and look longingly on the steep trail to greener pastures.

Most importantly, this pyramid should not be the pipe dream for ten years down the line. You cannot build the top of a pyramid before you even design the bottom. Sure, promotion and relegation in 2020 is probably impossible, and CanPL’s pioneering investors expect and deserve a chance to succeed without getting replaced by Surrey United. Fair enough! Build the pyramid and worry about the escalators for 2028. But build it. For if you do not have that wide base, why would a local fan care about a lousy Canadian-based soccer franchise when there are so many excellent foreign soccer franchises already on offer? What would a monolithic, purely commercial franchise named “York” have to distinguish itself from a monolithic, purely commercial franchise named “Toronto”? Appeals to patriotism only work if you have something to feel patriotic about, beyond a team’s mailing address.

CanPL for Goderich? We should all hope so. Not because that town is something special, but because it isn’t.

CanPL’s Historic Duty

By Benjamin Massey · August 9th, 2018 · 1 comment

Lake Side Buoys via Facebook, used with permission.

In the autumn of 1990 the Victoria Vistas were riding high in the Canadian Soccer League. They had rallied from an atrocious debut in 1989 to finish high-mid-table in the regular season, then knocked off the Winnipeg Fury on penalties in the first round of the playoffs. The mid-dynasty Vancouver 86ers beat Victoria on away goals in the semi-final but, especially in hindsight, there was nothing shameful about that. Victoria boasted local talent, led by veteran Canadian international Ian Bridge, and a few foreign stars like former Aston Villa skipper Allan Evans. Head coach Bruce Wilson, already a national legend from the 1986 World Cup and a Canada West champion coach with the University of Victoria, led a steady improvement throughout his first full season as a professional boss. It was a very good year.

Fans walked away from 1990 expecting more in 1991. But by March the Vistas were dead. Their players went in a dispersal draft, Wilson went back to UVic full-time, most of the locals dropped to the amateur ranks. The long story of Victoria soccer would go on, from the return of Victoria United to the Pacific Coast Soccer League, through the storied Vancouver Island Soccer League, all the way to USL PDL’s Victoria Highlanders, but this was all strictly local stuff. Victoria, one of Canada’s most soccer-mad cities, was deprived of the professional game for a generation.

On July 20, 2018, that finally changed when former Canadian internationals Josh Simpson and Rob Friend unveiled the Victoria area’s new Canadian Premier League team, Pacific FC. The new team is a backup plan after Friend’s attempted “Port City” greater Vancouver team couldn’t find a stadium, they’re playing in the suburb of Langford rather than Victoria soccer’s spiritual home at Royal Athletic Park, and the city is delighted anyway. The Victoria Highlanders’ supporters group, the Lake Side Buoys, are getting behind Pacific FC with hardly a flicker of doubt. Some diehard Highlanders supporters have waited for this moment longer than their future players have been alive.

It’s a beautiful story. It is also far from unique.

The Nova Scotia Clippers played one CSL season in Dartmouth, didn’t win a thing, and went away, but like Victoria, Halifax soccer has always punched above its weight. In the years since Nova Scotia has produced several professionals two national amateur championship teams. Now the CanPL Halifax Wanderers have an exciting “pop-up” stadium on historic ground and the most amazing grassroots supporters group that actually anticipated their team’s name. Winnipeg has been without professional soccer since 1992 and their PDL team has been bad, but fans there will turn out in the hundreds just to look at Desiree Scott and their CanPL team has already registered over 1,200 would-be season ticket holders.

Hamilton, the CanPL’s cradle if anywhere is, has waited as long without being able to enjoy PDL, but has “enjoyed” years of Bob Young almost bringing in an NASL team. It would be a surprise if Forge FC was not the best-supported first-year team of the bunch. Next to them Calgary looks like paradise; they had an A-League team as late as 2004 and today’s championship PDL team is the likely spine of their CanPL entry. York, the butt of jokes, had two at-least-semi-professional soccer teams in the 1990s and zero for the past half-decade. FC Edmonton‘s problems, spending 2018 without a league, are trivial by comparison.

As individuals we feel our excitement for the Canadian Premier League burning within us, a blazing beacon for soccer communities that have seen so much darkness. But taking a step back to look at the rest of the Dominion reveals that the same stories can be told all across the nation. Each of us, with our prayers, our desperation, and our patience, is repeated ten thousand times across four time zones. It’s inspirational. It is also an enormous emotional, historical, and cultural burden, which this new league will have to bear.

We fans—the ones who already exist, not the ones the league will have to attract—are bringing so many years of barely-sustained hope to these little stadiums. Such undying loyalty should be a point of pride, but it is also a lot of baggage. Do the league’s pioneers realize the weight they are responsible for? When the Canadian Soccer League started in the ’80s it was an ambitious but logical peak for our developing soccer pyramid. Our men’s soccer programs were at their very best and there was no serious American competition. It proved a noble failure, noble enough that we are proud of its legacy, but a failure all the same and one that left scars. And the thing about scars is that time does not make them go away.

Without signing a player or playing a game, these teams have become the targets for a generation of hope from the soccer supporters in seven different towns, all of which have been burned before. Such hopes cannot easily be recreated if dashed. Ask fans of FC Edmonton, a team which has had decent performances and all-time legendary ownership but can only slowly attract mass interest because the Brickmen and the Aviators and the Drillers have poisoned the well so thoroughly. What the Canadian Premier League has is one precious, potentially golden, building block, but it is oh-so-fragile.

The Canadian Premier League is not Canada’s last chance for a national soccer league, but it might be our last chance for anything good.

Even a qualified CanPL success, with Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal permanently lost to MLS and no hope in CONCACAF, one vast Wales, would be a very good thing. We do not need to aim too high. But if it fails entirely, if it turns into MLS-style corporate trash or goes broke, then those lost hopes will maim everything that comes later. The future will look like the new “Canadian” cricket league, where meaningless squads of foreign mercenaries named Vancouver, Montreal, and so on all play in Toronto, and at the end people nobody cared about lifted a trophy with no emotional attachment to it. Great if you want to sit outside for two hours but hopeless if you care about any of what makes sports compelling beyond the literal physical activity.

It’s a hard job. The diehards cannot simply be pandered to; there are too few. To survive any team must attract the common soccer family, this is mathematically unavoidable. Yet experience shows that without those diehards curating an organic soccer culture and bringing an atmosphere to the ground you become Chivas USA. Let supporters support, don’t abandon your community in the name of monolithic corporate genericity, and don’t screw up the business. Most of all, respect your local soccer history. With a league front office full of soccer men and team names like Jim Brennan, Stephen Hart, Josh Simpson, Tommy Wheeldon, and so on involved, that ought not to be too difficult. But you need to be aware of that responsibility.